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The Emperor of Fire

By Brynn Emond All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Prologue

The sky was red, as the sun, a fiery glob between the trees, began to set—the air was thick, humid, and stagnant, buzzing with restless bugs and alive with the sounds of living creatures. Eshoo picked his way through the dense bushes, wincing a little every time his foot sank into the warm, thick mud, worried that mud-pipers would take a bite at his toes. He had his new bow over his shoulder, along with the bushel of arrows he and his brother had made themselves. His skin was slick with sweat, but at least the bugs were leaving him alone—the other day he’d seen one of those giant mosquitoes chasing his grandmother across the village; she’d thrown herself right into the river to get away from the thing, and when she finally surfaced Eshoo saw to his horror that her face was swelling up with the biggest, nastiest mosquito bite he’d ever seen. No small wonder, though; the thing had been easily the size of a goat.

He’d gotten a special lotion from the hunting chief, Nyack, that apparently kept most of the biting insects away. Only the hunters, Eshoo had learned, could use it, since the ingredients that made it up were hard to come by and, since they spent much of their time right in the thick of the jungle, they needed it most.

He felt just a little giddy, as he pushed his way through the trees and the bushes, squinting against the warm red light of the setting sun. The day had been hot and rainy, like usual this time of year, but soon it would begin to cool off—and then, he reminded himself, he had to head home. But he hadn’t caught anything yet, and the idea of returning home after the first hunting trip of his life empty-handed was not boding well with him. He had to get something. Even if it was the fattest, laziest sloth in the world, hanging from a tree branch ripe for the pickings—he had to get it. Anything at all would do fine.

Eshoo stepped in mud again and flinched. Muttering to himself, he removed his foot and continued on his way, pushing through the bushes with one hand while the other rested on the hilt of the knife at his belt. As he got out of the bushes, an interesting sight met him, and he threw himself behind a small but thick-trunked tree, holding his breath.

He had no idea if it had seen him. A giant panther-beast, just sitting there—so close to the village!—licking its paws in a patch of red sunlight. He shallowed his breathing and crouched as still as possible, hearing the buzz of bugs and the trill of birds, and beneath that, the smacking sound of the panther-beast licking itself.

Eshoo was no idiot. He knew how powerful those things were, and the kind of devastation they caused. A pack of them had decimated a neighboring village a few years ago, and he remembered picking over the wreckage with some friends, playing in the empty houses and chasing after the stray dogs and cats that still lingered about, now without masters. Toma had found something—he wouldn’t say what it was—all he did was gibber on about something very red, and he threw up all over Eshoo’s feet. They’d had to drag him back home after he passed out. Eshoo didn’t want to know what Toma had seen.

The moral of the story was, nobody survived a panther-beast attack. You just didn’t. What you had to do, said Nyack, was turn and run and hope they didn’t chase after you. It was stupid to stay and try to fight—they were twice the size of a full grown man, and five times as strong—their claws could crush stone.

Eshoo, still holding his breath, cast a look to his side, where the beast’s shadow lay flat and dark across the jungle floor. Bugs buzzed in lazy circles through the fading sunlight; somewhere, a bird shrieked, and Eshoo jumped a little, his foot cracking a branch. He froze, listening hard, but heard no movement from the panther-beast—and after a long moment, feeling his heart thrumming in his ears, he did something foolish. He picked up a rock and threw it blindly—not meaning to hit the beast, but to get its attention.

And he did—the beast rose immediately, its feet nearly soundless on the soft jungle floor; he saw, out of the corner of his eye, it slinking across the ground, ears flat against its huge furred skull, tail flicking behind it. It went to investigate the source of the noise, and while it did, Eshoo got down on one knee, his pants sinking and soaking into another patch of mud—he got an arrow out from the quiver of his shoulder, set it to the bow, and pulled back the string, his hands trembling as he aimed for the panther-beast. It was just as huge as people claimed them to be—all of its movements spoke pure power, and he had no doubt it could crush him as easily as anything in its horrendously large jaws. It was still looking for the source of the noise—Eshoo tightened his arms, pulled the string back another inch, and let the arrow fly.

The arrow whizzed through the air, off course, and imbedded itself in a tree trunk a few inches above the panther-beast’s head with a thunk. The beast whirled, its yellow eyes huge, bright with predatory insanity.

Eshoo heeded Nyack’s advice—he turned and ran.

Eshoo was fast—he could outrun all of his friends. He had never, however, outran a panther-beast. Quickly he realized that it was probably impossible; he sprinted through the trees, catching his face on branches, stumbling on uneven patches of the ground, on roots and in mud—all the while having the sensation that something was right at his back, that eyes were piercing into him, that a creature with a mind only to kill him was chasing him, and that he would never escape alive.

Eshoo spotted a tree up ahead, the kind that the village children loved to climb, with a million thick, spread-out branches leading far up towards the ceiling of the jungle. He threw himself onto the lowest branch, his feet scrabbling at the trunk for purchase, and heaved himself up, just as a pair of jaws snapped at the place where his left foot had been hanging.

Almost blindly, he scrambled up the trunk, with almost inhuman speed borne out of utter terror. Not until he was forty feet off the ground did he chance to look down—and saw the panther-beast, slinking up the branches after him with uncanny agility. It was bigger than him, so it had to choose its movements more carefully, but it was doing just fine anyways. Eshoo cursed—he was an idiot! Panthers were cats, weren’t they, and cats could climb trees all day long.

But there was nothing else to do except keep climbing. So he did, and after a heart-stopping moment when a pair of claws swiped at his leg and narrowly missed, he grabbed his knife and put it between his teeth, and continued his way up the trunk. The branches were gradually becoming thinner, and both he and the panther-beast were having trouble finding steady places to put their feet. Eshoo was breathing hard, his heart smacking against his chest as if trying to beat its way right out of his skin—the panther was snarling and hissing, ears flat against its head, gazing up at him through the thin branches with its alarming yellow eyes.

“Come and get me, big fat cat,” Eshoo said, once he realized it couldn’t keep going. He had nearly reached the top himself—he was hanging on to a few skinny branches, which were bending dangerously under his weight, and the panther was more or less stuck. It hissed at him, but it had nowhere to go.

He grinned like an insane person and took a moment to catch his breath. The moment felt oddly unreal, like a nightmare that was becoming curiously funny; the panther couldn’t get to him, and he couldn’t climb down, either, with it there ready to kill him. They had reached a stalemate.

Eshoo wondered if it was possible to draw his bow and shoot the beast down, but to do that he would need both hands, and be forced to balance only with his feet. He didn’t trust himself to do that—so for now, he would just hold on and hope the panther-beast gave up and climbed back down.

A few minutes passed in the rapidly cooling heat of the jungle—the sun was gone, and here beneath the canopy of leaves it was becoming very dark. The panther-beast lay down on a branch, its head on its paws, as if it was ready to wait forever. Eshoo waved his hand at a bug buzzing around his face, and thought about what was happening. Even if he were to start for home right this instant, he would still arrive back much later than sundown—and people would wonder what had happened to him. The thought of his grandmother sitting in the house, worrying, made him start with guilt.

“Go home,” Eshoo whispered at the panther-beast. One of its ears flicked, but it didn’t move.

Well, he was certainly quite stuck at the moment. He’d never been out in the jungle much past sundown, people said there were ghosts that moved around at night—angry, violent things, the spirits of people like themselves that had passed away in war or in sickness, who could not bear to leave the earth and so had stayed behind to haunt the jungle. Eshoo didn’t exactly believe the stories, but just the thought of it possibly being true was slightly frightening. He could kill a panther-beast with an arrow—but how were you supposed to kill a ghost?

There were other horrors, too. Bandits, or foreigners that came to the jungle to kill everyone they saw—not to mention some of the animals, there would be more panther-beasts than where this one came from, and lizard-monkeys, if they really did exist and weren’t just an old legend—and worse things besides. As Eshoo stood there balanced on the branches at the top of the tree, his mind wandered, and he remembered some of the old stories his grandmother had told him. There was the one about how the Baki had come late to the jungle, moved here from a faraway land long after the monsters had already made their homes here, and that an ancient tribe led by the warrior Benga had made an agreement with the creatures of the jungle—that they would hunt at night, and the Baki would hunt in the daytime, so they would never have to run into each other. The Baki still hunted in the daytime, and Eshoo supposed that meant the monsters still hunted at night—if the legend was true.

There was also the story about the lizard-monkeys; curious creatures, with the bodies of apes and the tails of lizards, that lived deep in the jungle in some forgotten place, perhaps a city, or the ruin of one—and that they used to steal Baki babies from their cradles at night and spirit them away to make servants out of them. There was still a story that parents told their children, that if you wandered out of the village at night, the lizard-monkeys might just grab you and bundle you away to their city in the depths of the wilderness.

But Eshoo was just scaring himself. He didn’t really believe all of that—they were little children’s stories, meant to keep you away from panther-beasts or snakes or things that actually existed. But everything seemed more possible than usual, out here stranded at the top of a tree with dusk swiftly falling.

Eyeing the panther-beast splayed out a few branches down, Eshoo carefully took his bow from over his back, and hung it on a branch while he got out an arrow, all with one hand. He was afraid of letting go completely; the ground looked rather far down. Now, he reflected, would be a good time to acquire powers of flight, so he could just jump away and fly back to the village. But he was just a boy, stuck in a tree with a panther-beast that was evidently trying to wait him out.

He got his bow in one hand and an arrow between his teeth, and spent a very long minute trying to center his feet on the thin branches. He gathered his courage, and then let go—and for a moment he wobbled on the branches, feeling himself tipping—he grabbed it again, took a deep breath, and waited several moments before trying again. Once he got his balance, he quickly got his bow and strung an arrow, and aimed at the panther-beast. It was hard to get a clear shot through the branches. He adjusted his aim, carefully, his feet wobbling, and then let the arrow go.

It missed, again, sent spinning sideways after it hit a branch. The panther-beast flinched into a standing position and growled at Eshoo, who had made a wild grab for the branch again before he went toppling forwards off into thin air. They looked at each other for a moment, and then Eshoo strung another arrow, wobbling once more. He had a brief thought that, if he survived this, it was going to make a beautiful story. He’d get everyone to come sit by the fire—his grandmother, Nyack, everybody—and he’d make them listen about how he had bested the panther-beast at the top of a tree.

He let the second arrow fly.

He thought it might actually have hit this time. But he had no way of knowing for sure, because as he let the arrow go, he lost his balance.

There was an almost impossibly long moment where he was falling—thinking, I am going to die—and then, something that felt oddly like a hand caught him by his ankle and he stopped, dangling over thin air, staring down at the ground fifty feet away. He was almost sick, but then he felt himself thrown forwards—swung, like a rock from a sling—and there was a moment of weightlessness, followed by a jarring stop, and another hand around his ankle.

The next few minutes progressed much in the same way. He threw up twice. It was very unpleasant, in every possible way—he thought maybe he had gone insane, or just died and this was hell—but then, suddenly, it was over. Lights spun briefly before his eyes, and he found he was sitting down, slack-limbed and terrified, staring at a world full of monkeys.

Monkeys! He thought, amazed. He leaned forwards, looking down—the ground was once again very far away, and it seemed he was sitting on some sort of tower; under his feet was solid stone, overgrown with weeds. Light flickered against stone walls, carved with shapes and faces—he saw roofs and windows, and below, a kind of courtyard, all nearly overgrown with green vines and leafy ivy. Monkeys sat on every available space, staring at him or else talking amongst themselves. There was something definitely very odd about these monkeys, Eshoo gradually came to realize; they were not monkeys after all, he decided, since they had long scaly tails ribbed with sharp spikes, and they seemed to be speaking in the language of the Baki.

“Where did you find this?” said a voice, and Eshoo looked up—above him were even more monkeys, dozens of them, hanging from vines that criss-crossed above his head, between narrow stone towers and rooftops. A hundred curious eyes stared down at him, even as he stared back up at them.

“Well, we’d been following him, to see what he did,” another voice said. A brown-furred monkey was hanging upside-down almost directly at Eshoo’s side, its head twitching curiously as it watched him with small clever eyes. Its mouth moved as it continued, “He set out from the village at dawn this morning, and wandered about trying to hunt.”

“And he fell out of a tree!” a third voice called.

There was a surge of laughter. “Oh, humans! Barely monkeys, really! Have you seen them climb trees? It’s terrible to watch, limbs flailing, feet scrabbling—,”

The laughter surged, and then a loud voice said, “Quiet, quiet!”

The monkeys grew silent. A grey-furred monkey maneuvered its way through the crowd, and slid down a vine to hang right in front of Eshoo. It watched him carefully, its long spiked tail waving back and forth. Eshoo stared at it. Its fur, grey shot through with white, was wild and bushy around its small, dark face, deeply lined and leathery. Its eyes were pale and curious, and it licked its lips as it took him in.

Eshoo said, horrified, “Are you going to eat me?”

The grey-furred monkey hooted with amusement, and there was a roar of laughter from the others. The monkey waved a long-fingered hand to get them to quiet down, and then said to Eshoo, “Eat you? No, we do not eat humans, you’re our cousins. Don’t you see?” It grabbed his arm and picked it up for him to see. “We have the same number of fingers, and the same sort of arm! It would be like eating one of our own kind!”

The monkeys continued to laugh.

The grey monkey waved its hand again, and the silence resumed. “I have wanted to talk to a Baki from one of the villages for a while, but we can’t just walk right in and say hello—we had to be stealthy about it! So, we thought to tail one of the hunters next time they went out to hunt. Do you admire our cleverness?”

Eshoo was too overwhelmed to do much but listen and stare.

“There has been news,” the grey monkey went on, its pale eyes flicking about, “about odd things happening in the jungle. Something is causing trouble, and the Anahi talk of strange happenings in the world of humans, with the Empire at the root of it all. Have you heard about this?”

Eshoo shook his head, his mouth slightly open.

The brown monkey hanging at the side reached over to close Eshoo’s mouth, and the monkeys exclaimed with laughter again. The grey monkey waited it out, and then said, “Well, if you haven’t heard, then here I am telling you now. When you return to your village, tell the humans that the Anahi are spreading warnings into the winds, and that you, as all creatures should, would do well to heed it.”


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